Peshmerga forces on their way to the frontlines hours before the operation was launched. Photo: Rudaw video
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Forces liberating Mosul from Islamic State (ISIS) can expect the militant group to use many similar tactics they employed in Ramadi and Fallujah as the battle progresses, but the size of Mosul and the large civilian population will be serious complicating factors, analysts say.
“The main difference with Mosul to the previous operations is scale,” Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Rudaw English. “Mosul is 12 x 12 miles, Ramadi was 5 x 5, Tikrit was tiny, only 2 x 3 miles.”
“Ramadi had a [population] of 300-490,000 maximum, Mosul was 1.4 million before 2014,” Knights added. “So this presents unique challenges for us taking the city, but even more challenges for ISIS to defend it.”
Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst and author of the Musings on Iraq blog, echoed Knights when he pointed out that the “major difference” between Mosul and these two past operations was the size of the urban battlefield.
Mosul “is a major metropolis compared to places like Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah,” Wing told Rudaw English. “That means it will take longer to seize it.”
Wing believes that the Fallujah operation earlier this year “provides a good model for how Mosul will go down.”
“In Fallujah the Islamic State had tough outer defenses, but once those were broken the city fell rather quickly,” he explained. “That was because most of the population was still in the city and ISIS had its families and personnel there and therefore could not lay IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and such on the inside. Mosul is similar because it is the group's headquarters and has a large population.”
“Another similarity with Fallujah is the huge humanitarian disaster that ensued with displaced people and taking care of them, which will also play out in Mosul,” Wing added.
Owen J. Daniels, the Assistant Director for the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Councils’ Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, sees parallels with the recapture of Ramadi last December.
“On the coalition side, we can expect some similarities to the Ramadi operation in both tactics and reliance on air power,” Daniels told Rudaw English.
In Ramadi the elite Golden Division of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) spearheaded the ground assault into the city with close coalition air support, which reduced large swaths of it to rubble.
“The coalition will plan to encircle and isolate Mosul through a pincer movement, with Kurdish Peshmerga forces approaching from the northwest and Iraqi Security and Special Forces approaching from the southeast. The international anti-ISIS coalition will provide air support through heavy bombing, as it did in Ramadi and Fallujah, to weaken ISIS as much as possible before ground forces move into the city. As a result, we can probably expect similarly high levels of destruction and damage to Mosul’s buildings and infrastructure,” Daniels explained.
ISIS “has embedded itself deeply in Mosul, arguably deeper in Ramadi and Fallujah,” he added. “This means that the upcoming fight could leave the city in ruins. Mosul could resemble Fallujah in that ISIS’s defenses on the outskirts may give way to less-heavy interior defenses.”
Daniels believes that in Mosul ISIS will consolidate their positions and slow down their enemies on the ground using booby traps and roadside bombs while using their tunnel networks “to flee or surprise coalition ground forces.”
“Ramadi and Fallujah also demonstrated that the attackers who remained in those cities fought to the death, and often relied on car or suicide bombs when their situations became dire. We should expect the use of similar tactics in Mosul, plus new techniques they appear to be using like bomb-armed drones,” he explained.
The primary contrast Daniels sees is the broad number of forces fighting to retake Iraq’s second-city.
“The coalition fighting force for Mosul is going to be quite broad, incorporating Iraqi Security and Special Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Sunni tribal forces, and Shia militia groups,” he said. “The size of Mosul and sectarian diversity of the operation’s forces could see eventual success, but through fits and starts.”
Even though Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga have agreed to remain on the outskirts of the city, “the involvement of so many actors threatens to make implementing the chain of command and post-conflict stabilization plans extremely difficult,” Daniels warned.
“The lack of a political agreement between all parties for post-conflict governance and repair of the city could prove a major point of tension in the immediate aftermath of the fight, and will test the strength of Iraq’s central government,” he concluded.